On my office door is this little sign, Discipline, Priorities, Boundaries. It comes from the teachings of the Stoic philosophers. I printed it out during a particularly bad week in the middle days of quarantine, when the abject terror for all my beloved family and friends had subsided and the boredom of not doing anything, ever, had set in. I was having trouble getting my writing done, despite a looming deadline, and would spend entire days in a fugue state, unable to recount a single thing I had done besides eat Starburst.
Starburst were my Corona habit. That waxy paper, the chewy sweetness, the burst of nerve-soothing sugar got me through a lot of anxiety. I know lots of you found some other bad habit to ease yourself through the uncertainty.
But of course, a person can’t indulge a really bad habit for very long without consequences. After a few weeks, that excess sugar started to make me feel like crap, and I knew it was just a mindless pacifier helping me to deal with overwhelming, brand-new uncertainties. Would my mother get sick? Would I? What about that grandmother dying alone in the hospital with no one to talk to her. (Of all the things, this one bothers me the most by far, and it is practically inhuman.)
We all have been through some version of this, and you know, it’s not appreciably improving. There is just no way to predict anything. We are stuck, living day to day, in this reality.
Seems like a perfect time for a writer to escape into the work. Can’t go anywhere. Can’t visit anyone. Have already binged everything on Netflix. Maybe escaping into the world of my book, a world I control (more or less), a world I invented, would feel great.
Except, like many of you, I’m sure, I just couldn’t get into it. I wrote, because that’s what I do, but it was never for long, never very much.
Which is where the stoics come in. Last year, I went to the West Country in England for research on what became The Lost Girls of Devon. In Glastonbury, my partner picked up a book of daily readings from the Stoics, a group of Roman philosophers I didn’t really know much about. We established a daily habit of reading them over breakfast every day on our travels, and kept it up when we got home.
If you know me, you probably think this is a strange fit. I tend more to the excessive (see Starburst, above) and intense than measured and thoughtful.
The idea of stoicism seems austere and rather dry, but in fact the Stoics were quite interested in living a good, full life, but they wanted to live mindfully, with good character. The writings are almost always simple, straightforward, and profound. More than anything, it reminds me of Buddhism, with echoes of 12-step programs.
Back to the lack of writing. The long days with nothing to show for them. One thing the stoics value is self-discipline, and a whole month of readings was devoted to that idea,. It suddenly came to me that maybe what I needed to do was simply do the work.
I tried. More days of spinning my wheels. The stoics, like the Buddhists, suggest observing your behavior.
I observed my behavior.
Which revealed my penchant for reading all of three newspapers, every day, before getting into my work. Because I’m a news junkie and I know myself well enough to know I will never stop needing to know and understand the world around me, I asked myself how to change that habit. Maybe read them after the work was finished?
Worth a try. As much chaos as there is in the world, I could still probably catch up in an hour or so. If I placed my writing in the hours I always had, first thing, before anything could interfere, maybe I’d be more successful getting words on the page.
Shocking how well it worked. Just shocking. [Read more…]